The row follows comments by Charles Pollard, Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police, who said "zero tolerance" was in danger of becoming empty rhetoric that could lead to rioting by victimising ethnic minorities.
Both the Tories and Labour have grasped the concept of zero tolerance, first tested in New York where no crime however small is ignored, and promoted it in their manifestos.
But yesterday, when questioned on the issue, John Major appeared to take a more liberal stance than Tony Blair when he stressed that some petty offenders were simply "inadequate" and that resources should be targeted at professional criminals. He said: "I don't think zero tolerance to one- off offenders who may be inadequate in some way is the right way to deal with them. When you are talking about the professional criminal class it is the right way to deal with them."
Labour immediately accused the Tories of being "hopelessly split" on the issue. Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "John Major said that zero tolerance was not appropriate for one-off offenders. Subsequently Michael Howard [the Home Secretary] has supported such an approach. If they can't agree on whether disorder should be tackled, it is no wonder that David Mellor has said they have 'lost the plot on law and order'."
Labour sources said they agreed with chief constables that zero-tolerance schemes should not be used in isolation and that the aggressive US approach was inappropriate to Britain.
However, Mr Blair said earlier in the day that he did not accept claims that the policy could cause riots.
"The only way to get crime down is to say there are certain decent standards in this country and we are going to force them all the way through. I am absolutely passionate about this because otherwise you are admitting there is a level of crime you are prepared to disregard."
Alan Beith, home affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, argued that zero tolerance was a "misleading phrase". He said: "If it means an intolerance to people who are simply different in their outlook and style to the rest of us, then I think it is rather a dangerous concept and there is no way you can enforce every law, every minute of every day."
Meanwhile another senior police officer, Ray White, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers and Chief Constable of Dyfed-Powys, stressed that zero-tolerance tactics were expensive, and were not a complete answer to crime.
He said: "We would also be concerned of any false impression that the police hold the key to resolution of all social ills. Other agencies and the public have vital roles to play. It would be wrong and dangerous to deal solely with the symptoms of any societal breakdown, without seeking to address its causes."
Det Chief Insp Ray Mallon, who has led a zero-tolerance style initiative in Middlesbrough, insisted, however, that such tactics could pay handsome dividends. He said: "We are not prepared to be a wishy-washy police force bumbling along."Reuse content